English Literature

The Cruise of the Esmeralda by Harry Collingwood

The Cruise of the Esmeralda by Harry Collingwood

Chapter One.

The Story of the Buried Treasure.

Those of my readers who happen to be well acquainted with Weymouth, will also be assuredly acquainted with a certain lane, known as Buxton’s Lane, branching off to the right from the high-road at Rodwell, and connecting that suburb with the picturesque little village of Wyke. I make this assertion with the most perfect confidence, because Buxton’s Lane happens to afford one of the most charming walks in that charming neighbourhood; and no one can well be a sojourner for any length of time in Weymouth without discovering this fact for him or herself, either through inquiry or by means of personal exploration.

And of those who have enjoyed a saunter through this lane, some there will doubtless be who can remember a substantial stone-built house, standing back a distance of about a hundred yards or so from the roadway, and environed by a quaint old-fashioned garden, the entire demesne being situate on the crest of the rise just before Wyke is reached, and commanding an unparalleled view of the roadstead of Portland, with the open channel as far as Saint Alban’s Head to the left, while on the right the West Bay (notorious for its shipwrecks) stretches from the Bill of Portland, far away westward, into the misty distance toward Lyme, and Beer, and Seaton; ay, and even beyond that, down to Berry Head, past Torquay, the headland itself having been distinctly seen from Wyke Nap on a clear day, so it is said, though I cannot remember that I ever saw it myself from that standpoint.

The house to which I refer is (or was, for I believe it no longer exists) known as “The Spaniards,” and was built by my ancestor, Hubert Saint Leger, with a portion of the proceeds of the Spanish prize that—having so harried and worried her that she at length became separated from the main body of the Great Armada—he drove into Weymouth Bay, and there, under the eyes of his admiring fellow-townsmen, fought her in his good ship Golden Rose, until she was fain to strike her colours and surrender to a craft of considerably less than half her size.

“The Spaniards” had continued in possession of the Saint Leger family from the time of its building down to the date of my story; and under its roof I was born. And to its roof I had returned from an Australian voyage, a day or two previous to the events about to be related, to find my dear mother in the direst of trouble. My father, like all the rest of the male Saint Legers, for as many generations as we could trace back, had been a seaman, and had died abroad, leaving my mother such a moderate provision as would enable her, with care, to end her days in peace and comfort beneath the old roof-tree. It was a lonely life for her, poor soul! for I was her only child, and—being a Saint Leger—took naturally to the sea as a profession. That I should do so was indeed so completely a foregone conclusion, that I was especially educated for it at Greenwich; upon leaving which, I had been bound apprentice to my father. And under him I had faithfully served my time, and had risen to the position of second mate when death claimed him, and he passed away in my arms, commending my mother to my tenderest care with his last breath.

Since that terrible time I had made several voyages to our eastern possessions, and now, when my story opens, was chief mate of a fine clipper-ship, with some hopes of promotion to the rank of “captain” when a suitable vacancy should occur.

The voyage which I had just concluded had been a singularly fortunate one for me, for on our homeward passage, when a short distance to the eastward of the Cape, we had fallen in with a derelict, homeward-bound from the Moluccas and Philippines, with a cargo of almost fabulous value on board; and, having taken possession of her, I had been placed in command, with a crew of four hands, with instructions to take her into Table Bay, there to raise my crew to the full complement, and, having done so, to afterwards navigate her to her destination. This I had successfully accomplished, arriving home only nine days after my own ship. A claim for salvage had been duly made, and I calculated that when the settling day arrived, my own share would fall very little short of three thousand pounds, if, indeed, it did not fully reach that figure.

I have stated that when, upon the termination of an Australian voyage and the completion of my duties as chief mate, I returned to my ancestral home for the purpose of spending a brief holiday with my mother prior to my departure upon yet another journey to the antipodes, I had found her in dire trouble. This trouble was the natural—and I may say inevitable—result of my father’s mistaken idea that he was as good a man of business as he was a seaman. Acting under this impression, he had relied entirely upon his own unaided judgment in the investment of his savings; and, anxious only to secure as generous a provision as possible for my mother, had been tempted to put his hard-earned money into certain projects that, offering, in their inception, a too alluring promise of continuous prosperity and generous dividends, had failed to withstand the test of time and the altered conditions of trade; with the result that, after paying handsome percentages for a more or less lengthened period, they had suddenly collapsed like a pricked balloon, leaving my poor mother penniless. Of course everything had been done that was possible to save something, though it might be ever so little, from the wreck; but there had been nothing to save; every penny was gone; and when I reached home I found the poor soul literally at her wits’ end to maintain a supply of the ordinary necessaries of life.

My appearance upon the scene of course necessitated the raking up of the whole miserable story once more; but when I had been told everything, I saw at once that nothing more could be done, and that my poor mother would simply have to put up with the loss as best she might.

Then arose the question of what was best to be done under our altered circumstances. The first conclusion at which we arrived was the obvious one that it would be quite impossible for my mother to maintain such an establishment as “The Spaniards” upon my income of ten pounds per month as chief mate; and she therefore suggested that we should let it upon a lease, if a suitable tenant could be found, and that she should retire, with her altered fortunes, into the obscurity of some small cottage. To this, however, I would in no wise consent; and it was while we were discussing the matter in all its bearings, and casting about for an acceptable alternative, that my mother let fall a remark, which, little as we suspected it at the moment, proved to be the key-note of the present story.

“Ah, my son,” she ejaculated, with a hopeless sigh, “if we could but find the lost clue to Richard Saint Leger’s buried treasure, all might yet be well with us!”

“Ah!” I responded, with a still more hopeless sigh, “if only we could! But I suppose there is about as much chance of that as there is of my becoming Lord High Admiral of Great Britain. The clue must be irretrievably lost, or it would have been discovered long ere now. I suppose every Saint Leger, from my great-great-great-grandfather Hugh, downwards, has taken his turn at hunting for that miserable lost clue; and the fact that they all failed to find it is conclusive evidence to me that it is no longer in existence.”

“Well, I really don’t know, my boy; I am not prepared to say so much as that,” answered my mother. “Your dear father took the same view of the matter that you do, and never, to my knowledge, devoted a single hour to the search. And I have heard him say that it was the same with your grandfather. And if they never searched for the lost clue, how can we know or suppose that any one has searched for it since Hugh Saint Leger abandoned the quest? Yet there never appears to have been the slightest shadow of doubt in the minds of any of your ancestors, that when Richard Saint Leger died in the arms of his son Hugh, he held the clue to the secret; indeed, he died in the act of endeavouring to communicate it.”

“So I have always understood,” answered I, with languidly reviving interest. “But it is so long since I last heard the story—not since I was a little shaver in petticoats—that I have practically forgotten the details. I should like to hear it again, if it is not troubling you too much.”

“It is no trouble at all, my dear boy, for it can be told in very few words. Besides, you ought to know it,” answered my mother. “You are aware, of course, that the Saint Legers have been a race of daring and adventurous seamen, as far back as our family records go; and Richard Saint Leger, who was born in 1689, was perhaps the most daring and adventurous of them all. He was a contemporary of the great Captain (afterwards Lord) Anson; and it was upon his return from a voyage to the West Indies that he first became aware of the rumours, which reached England from time to time, of the fabulous value of the galleon which sailed annually from Acapulco to Manilla laden with the treasure of Peru. These rumours, which were no doubt greatly exaggerated, were well calculated to excite the imagination and stimulate the enterprise of the bold and restless spirits of that period; so much so, indeed, that when the English, in 1739, declared war against Spain, the capture of one of these ships became to the English adventurer what the discovery of the fabled El Dorado had been to his predecessor of Elizabethan times. At length—in the year 1742, I think it was—it became whispered about among those restless spirits that a galleon had actually been captured, and that the captors had returned to England literally laden with wealth. Richard Saint Leger was one of the first to hear the news; and it so fired his imagination—and probably his cupidity—that he never rested until he had traced the rumour to its source, and found it to be true. He then sought out the leader of the fortunate expedition, and having pledged himself to the strictest secrecy, obtained the fullest particulars relating to the adventure. This done, his next step was to organise a company of adventurers, with himself as their head and leader, to sail in search of the next year’s galleon. This was in the year 1742. The expedition was a failure, so far as the capture of the galleon was concerned, for she fell into the hands of Commodore Anson. In other respects, however, the voyage proved fairly profitable; for though they missed the great treasure ship, they fell in with and captured another Spanish vessel which had on board sufficient specie to well recompense the captors for the time and trouble devoted to the adventure. And now I come to the part of the story which relates to what has always been spoken of in the family as Richard Saint Leger’s buried treasure. It appears that on board the captured Spanish ship of which I have just spoken, certain English prisoners were found, the survivors of the crew of an English ship that had fought with and been destroyed by the Spanish ship only a few days prior to her own capture. These men were of course at once removed to Richard Saint Leger’s own ship, where they received every care, and their hurts—for it is said that every man of them was more or less severely wounded—treated with such skill as happened to be available, with the result that a few of them recovered. Many, however, were so sorely hurt that they succumbed to their injuries, the English captain being among this number. He survived, however, long enough to tell Richard Saint Leger that he had captured the galleon of the previous year, and had determined upon capturing the next also. With this object in view, and not caring to subject their booty to the manifold risks attendant upon a cruise of an entire year, they had sought out a secluded spot, and had there carefully concealed the treasure by burying it in the earth. Now, however, the poor man was dying, and could never hope to enjoy his share of the spoil, or even insure its possession to his relatives. He therefore made a compact with Richard Saint Leger, confiding to him the secret of the hiding-place, upon the condition that, upon the recovery of the treasure, one half of it was to be handed over in certain proportions to the survivors of the crew who had captured it, or, failing them, to their heirs; Richard Saint Leger to take the other half.

“Now, whether it was that Richard Saint Leger was of a secretive disposition, or whether he had some other motive for keeping the matter a secret, I know not; but certain it is that he never made the slightest reference to the matter—even to his son Hugh, who was sailing with him—until some considerable time afterwards. The occasion which led to his taking Hugh into his confidence was the meeting with another enemy, which they promptly proceeded to engage; and it may have been either as a measure of prudence in view of the impending conflict, or perhaps some premonition of his approaching end that led him to adopt the precaution of imparting the secret to a second person. He had deferred the matter too long, however; and he had only advanced far enough in his narrative to communicate the particulars I have just given, when the two ships became so hotly engaged that the father and son were obliged to separate in the prosecution of their duties, and the conclusion of the story had to be deferred until a more convenient season. That season never arrived, for Richard Saint Leger was struck down, severely wounded, early in the fight, and the command of the ship then devolved upon Hugh. Moreover, not only was there a very great disparity of force in favour of the Spaniards, but, contrary to usual experience, they fought with the utmost valour and determination, so that for some time after the ships had become engaged at close quarters the struggle was simply one for bare life on the part of the English, during which Hugh Saint Leger had no leisure to think of treasure or of anything else, save how to save his comrades and himself from the horrors of capture by their cruel enemies.

“Meanwhile, the consciousness gradually forced itself upon Richard Saint Leger that he was wounded unto death, and that time would soon be for him no more. Realising now, no doubt, the grave mistake he had committed in keeping so important a secret as that of the hiding-place of the treasure locked within his own breast, he despatched a messenger to Hugh, enjoining the latter to hasten to the side of his dying father forthwith, at all risks. The messenger, however, was shot dead ere he could reach Hugh Saint Leger’s side, and the urgent message remained undelivered. At length the stubborn courage of the English prevailed, and, despite their vast superiority in numbers, the Spaniards, who had boarded, were first driven back to their own deck and then below, when, further resistance being useless, they flung down their arms and surrendered.

“Hugh now, after giving a few hasty orders as to the disposal of the prisoners, found time to think of his father, whom he remembered seeing in the act of being borne below, wounded, in the early part of the fight. He accordingly hurried away in search of him, finding him in his own cabin, supported in the arms of one of the seamen, and literally at his last breath. It was with difficulty that Hugh succeeded in rendering his father conscious of his presence; and when this was at length accomplished the sufferer only rallied sufficiently to gasp painfully the words, ‘The treasure—buried—island—full particulars—concealed in my—’ when a torrent of blood gushed from his mouth and nostrils, and, with a last convulsive struggle, Richard Saint Leger sank back upon his pallet, dead.

“He was buried at sea, that same night, along with the others who had fallen in the fight; and some days afterwards, when Hugh Saint Leger had conquered his grief sufficiently to give his attention to other matters, he set himself to the task of seeking for the particulars relating to the buried treasure. But though he patiently examined every document and scrap of paper contained in his father’s desk, and otherwise searched most carefully and industriously in every conceivable hiding-place he could think of, the quest was unavailing, and the particulars have never been found, to this day!”

“It is very curious,” I remarked, when my mother had brought her narrative to a conclusion—“very curious, and very interesting. But what you have related only strengthens my previous conviction, that the document or documents no longer exist. I have very little doubt that, if the truth could only be arrived at, it would be found that Richard Saint Leger kept the papers concealed somewhere about his clothing, and that they were buried with him.”

“No; that was certainly not the case,” rejoined my mother; “for it is distinctly stated that—probably to obviate any such possibility—Hugh Saint Leger carefully preserved every article of clothing which his father wore when he died; and the things exist to this day, carefully preserved, upstairs, together with every other article belonging to Richard Saint Leger which happened to be on board the ship at that time.”

“And have those relics never been examined since my ancestor Hugh abandoned the quest as hopeless?” I inquired.

“They may have been; I cannot say,” answered my mother. “But I do not believe that your dear father—or your grandfather either, for that matter—ever thought it worth while to subject them to a thoroughly exhaustive scrutiny. Your father, I know, always felt convinced, as you do, that the documents had been either irretrievably lost, or destroyed.”

“Then if that be so,” I exclaimed, “they shall have another thorough overhaul from clew to earring before I am a day older. If, as you say, every scrap of property belonging to Richard Saint Leger was carefully collected and removed from the ship when she came home, and still exists, stored away upstairs, why, the papers must be there too; and if they are I will find them, let them be hidden ever so carefully. Whereabouts do you say these things are, mother?”

“In the west attic, where they have always been kept,” answered my mother. “Wait a few minutes, my dear boy, until I have found the keys of the boxes, and we will make the search together.”

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Categories: English Literature

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